Though not quite my favorite book, The Order of the Phoenix is definitely the scariest in the Harry Potter series. The fact that two of us raised our hands to speak for it says much, but like its doppelgänger, Prisoner of Azkaban, Phoenix’s fear is primarily psychological and therefore far more upsetting than its more externally-focused counterparts.
We are subjected to Harry’s tormented point of view, swinging violently between moody isolation and angry outbursts. Once again he is haunted by visions which both frighten and intrigue him: Long, dark corridors and locked doors. We spend much of our time in the grimmest of all places, the House of Black, which evokes the urban gothic tradition of claustrophobic and derelict manor homes of Dorian Gray and Usher, reflecting the decline and corruption of their owners. There is the Freudian sense that lurking underneath all this former civility and propriety is madness, cruelty and evil.
Unsettling of all is that we begin to wonder this not only of the blatantly villainous Death Eaters and insane Blacks, but of our own heroes. “Is Sirius really so different from his family?” we wonder as Rowling hints at his depression and substance abuse. Harry’s peak inside the Pensieve suggests that James Potter was as bullying as Snape made him out to be. Dumbledore remains remote and indeed neglectful of Harry throughout. Harry constantly wonders, both to himself and occasionally aloud, if something has gone wrong inside him, which is of course the question of every great psychological thriller.
In the end, what elevates the fear level above even Prisoner is the book’s seeming confirmation of this terror, isolation and hopelessness. For all the doubts it raises, Prisoner ultimately affirms life, family and hope. It is a coming-together story. Order, belying its title, is about tearing apart. Harry’s authority figures and mentors (Dumbledore and Sirius especially) fail him. Though (as usual) entirely mistaken about the nature of Voldemort’s plans, Harry’s paranoia and pigheadedness inadvertently make him responsible for the loss of his godfather Sirius, his one remaining link to his family and the person he so desperately tried to save. Rowling’s postmodern narrative teaches us to second-guess what we read from even the most trustworthy of characters, but even more than usual Order urges us to remember that nothing and no one is what they seem.
All of that does not even go into the various creepy trappings which are the hallmark of every Harry Potter story, which are as rich in Order as in any other novel in the series. Few characters in popular culture have terrified readers young and old, and struck such a strangely personal chord, as that most hated of teachers, Professor Umbridge. Equipped with sadism and a false smile, she reminds us why going to school could be a harrowing experience. There is Nagini’s gory attack of Mr. Weasley, Kreacher’s creeping servility and betrayal, and of course the introduction of the utterly unhinged Bellatrix Lestrange. Order is full of characters you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley.
Now, if you enjoyed the kind of scare in Order of the Phoenix, then for psychological horror, there is nothing finer than that Stephen King’s The Shining. It’s he quintessential book that makes you wonder: “Are these terrors really happening, or is it all in my head?” Although to be honest, I recommend Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film version even more strongly (sorry, book purists). More recently, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane also features a young protagonist navigating a terrifying world full of even more terrifying adults.